Inside Slovenia

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Waste-to-energy plan proceeds amidst health fears

Slovenia's plans to build multiple waste-to-energy installations as new sources of energy and to reduce exports of waste are proceeding apace amidst warnings by doctors who say the environmental and health implications are being ignored.

The country has one standalone waste-to-energy plant, in Celje, and co-incineration in a handful of industrial installations. Now, it plans to build several more plants.

The government issued a regulation on 10 May paving the way for 30-year concession fees. The number of new installations has not been set but several government documents indicate that four would be the maximum number for the estimated 180,000 tonnes of municipal waste that would be incinerated annually.

Ljubljana, Maribor, Celje and Końćevje have expressed an interest in building waste-to-energy plants, which would be connected to district heating systems to improve effectiveness.

Ljubljana has designated the project as a priority in the city's recently adopted energy concept until 2030. It estimates the cost at EUR 134 million.

While energy independence is the overarching concern of energy policy at the moment due to the war in Ukraine, the original driver of the plan was Hungary's decision in 2019 to stop imports of sludge left over from the treatment of waste.

The move forced Slovenian companies to export tens of thousands of tons of the sludge, which when dried can be incinerated, to Austria at a much higher cost.

There have also been several instances of sludge being dumped in nature instead of being disposed of properly, provoking sharp protests in a country that prides itself on its natural beauty.

Another problem that incineration would address is the mountains of waste packaging that have intermittently plagued the country for years due to disputes over how much waste packaging recycling companies must accept and how much they have to pay for it.

The problem has been addressed in an early-2022 law that introduces expanded producer responsibility, but the provisions governing that have been challenged at the Constitutional Court, which is yet to hand down its ruling on the matter.

If the provisions were to be repealed, the dispute over waste packaging would erupt again.

There was broad political agreement in the recent general election campaign on the need for incineration plants, but most parties pledged to insist on strict emission standards.

Doctors have chimed in now as well, as they issued a stark rebuke on 25 May of the government regulation on concessions claiming that it does not contain the obligation for a preliminary environmental impact assessment.

"Waste incineration releases many toxins that are hazardous to pregnant women and the development of children, causing many illnesses and premature deaths," the Medical Chamber said.

It urged the incoming government to annul it and adopt a new regulation governing all aspects of waste incineration responsibly and comprehensively, and to impose emission limits that are at least on a par with the European Commission's latest requirement.

The chamber demands that full compliance with the latest EU standards for incinerators be set as a condition to obtain a concession.

The Environment Ministry said in response that non-recyclable municipal waste will be incinerated only in locations where this was safe for people and the environment.

It noted that obtaining a concession would not be a sufficient condition for the operation of a waste-to-energy plant, as the concessionaire would have to carry out procedures to site the facility and obtain all the required permits.

"All further procedures are prescribed by law and are a necessary safeguard so that facilities are sited in a way that does not pose a hazard to the environment and people," the ministry said.

It remains unclear for now whether the new government will pursue the same policy or reverse course.

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